“The Relationship Montage”
Gary and Nikki decided to give dating a legitimate try. They agreed to take it slow, since they were less likely to kill each other if the passion were to burn out before they anticipated. But, they also didn’t know each other’s relational pasts or thresholds for pain, and they didn’t want to screw things up right out of the gate. Immediate passion was fun and mysterious, but they’d tried that with other people, and they weren’t with those other people anymore, so they figured the slower approach was worth a shot. They had no idea if it was any better; they just knew it was different, and different came with hope.
For their first post-Wild Luck Hut date, they chose to hang out at the mall. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, and they were instantly swallowed up by a maddening crowd. But they made a game of it. They pretended they were salmon swimming upstream a busy river. Then they talked about why salmon swam upstream and immediately changed the subject. It was too intimate, too soon.
They met up again the first Friday in December at a park downtown. Even though the park closed at sundown, they decided to walk along the shadowed paths under the waxing moon. They thought it was a good idea initially, but changed their mind when they stumbled upon a campsite full of naked hippies roasting marshmallows by a fire. Again, too intimate, too soon.
The second and third Friday in December, they just spent texting each other. Nikki was too busy studying for finals to go out, and Gary was stuck working late at his retailer for the holiday rush. They did what they could to make the most of it, but Gary was certainly less than engaged. He preferred seeing her face-to-face.
Gary: Hey, Nikki.
Gary: What you up to tonight?
Gary: Going well?
Nikki: OMG, no!
Gary: Hey, BRB. Work calls.
Gary: What’re you studying?
Gary: What subject?
Nikki: all of them
Gary: Argh, another customer.
Nikki wasn’t much of a conversationalist, he realized, but she was stunning to look at. Therefore, spending not one but two Friday nights in a row just texting her kinda sucked.
Fortunately, they got to see each other again after her semester ended. They decided to spend the holidays together.
The holiday was a quaint affair. Her family was in Europe on a three-week vacation, and she couldn’t afford to go with them, so she stayed behind to keep an eye on the house. While she was on her own, she had bought a small Christmas tree—basically a malnourished shrub—and wrapped around it a string of lights and set it on the coffee table. Then she clipped cherries to the branches to give it some additional color. Gary had helped her with the decorations. It had brought them closer together. They’d kissed for the first time beside that ugly shrub. Their dating relationship had officially ignited a minute later. Whatever plan they had in taking it slow went out the window in that moment. They spent the next three hours kissing by the Christmas shrub. Gary had never tasted anything so sweet in his life.
During their adventure through the mall on Black Friday, Nikki had finally noticed the sorry state of Gary’s shoes and made a snide comment about them.
“Your toes enjoying all that air?” she asked.
Gary didn’t think anything of it. He liked his shoes, even if they were falling apart. The important thing was that the soles held, for the most part, and he could walk without them peeling off mid-stride. But Nikki continued to make silly comments about them. Then, as a joke, she walked him into a shoe store and showed him all of the brand names she was going to buy him for Christmas. He laughed, of course, even though it wasn’t that funny, and that was that. They left the store and went on with their date.
The days went by, and the relationship continued to heat up. Gary had no idea what he’d done right, but he couldn’t believe his luck the day the bus had almost smashed into him. And he also had to thank Shawn, a number of times, for urging him to make that move on her. He admitted that he never would have believed it was possible on his own, and if not for Shawn, he wouldn’t have ended up with someone as amazing as Nikki.
But, as Valentine’s Day crept ever closer, Gary noticed Shawn’s attitude about Nikki changing. When they were out trying to figure out what to buy their respective girlfriends for the holiday, Shawn said something to Gary that Gary didn’t expect.
“I think she’s using you, dude,” he said.
Gary was a little surprised by the comment. For the last three months, Shawn had been fist-bumping him over every new milestone he had reached with Nikki. It was on Shawn’s advice that Gary introduce her to his parents, which he hadn’t followed through on, but he had nonetheless appreciated the suggestion. Shawn had even volunteered to let Gary spend the New Year alone with Nikki, to enjoy the time together without outside distraction. So, when Shawn made that claim, he didn’t know where that idea had come from.
“I see how she looks at you,” he said. “It’s not the way Ronda looks at me.”
“Ronda doesn’t really like you though, does she?” Gary asked.
“Doesn’t matter. The point is, Nikki doesn’t look at you like she’s into you.”
Gary stuffed his hands in his pockets. He had no idea where Shawn had gotten that idea. He tried searching his mind for evidence to his claim, but every picture of her he saw in his mind, Nikki was smiling at him as if she wanted him to take her right there right now.
“I think you’re wrong.”
Shawn shook his head.
“No, I’m not. I know when a chick is into a dude, and she ain’t into you like you are into her.”
Gary wanted to laugh. Clearly, Shawn was delusional. But he thought about it more. Then he realized that he saw her smile that way at him even when she was doing her taxes the week before. He frowned. Maybe Shawn had a point.
“How does she look at me then?”
Shawn patted him on the shoulder.
“Like she’s doing you a favor.”
Gary narrowed his eyebrows. That didn’t sound right to him.
“No, I reject that,” he said. “What favor could she possibly give me? We’re in love.”
“You’re in love. The favor she’s doing is dating you.”
“That’s ridiculous. We kiss like all the time.”
“Yeah, women are great at that, even when they’re not into it. It’s a game.”
Gary smirked at the idea. He knew Nikki. They were great together. She loved him. Shawn was being ridiculous.
“Okay,” he said. “If she is doing me a favor, then what’s her angle?”
Shawn swiped an ad for a vacuum cleaner off of a display rack on their way to the next shop.
“She wants you to do her a favor. Obviously.”
He slapped the vacuum cleaner ad into Gary’s hand.
“Okay, what favor?”
Shawn shrugged again.
“How am I supposed to know? She’s not using me.”
By April, Gary noticed Nikki making more or more excuses about how busy she was, and how they would need to postpone their dates for another night. By May, she was kissing him less often than in the months before. By June, she was kissing him almost exclusively on the cheek. When Gary asked her if everything was all right, she simply smiled, patted his arm, and said, “Of course.” He didn’t know what more to ask, so he left it alone.
July and August saw an unusual amount of consistency in her behavior, in that she treated him with the same platonic respect that she’d been showing him in June. When she was breaking consistency, it was in Gary’s favor. There were a couple of times near the end of August that they made out. Gary was so excited about the burst of energy in their relationship that he’d felt a renewed sense of hope about their future, so he went out and spent his hard-earned money on a new car for her. She had been going everywhere by foot or by bus since the day they met, and he wanted to give her a chance to drive herself around town for a change. It wasn’t anything fancy—just an old silver ’94 Nissan Sentra with automatic shift, power windows, and a broken air-conditioner—but he was proud of it. When he surrendered the key to her, she thanked him and kissed him on the cheek.
By mid-September, she traded the Sentra for the slightly newer but much nicer ’98 Toyota Camry. Gary found out about it the night she drove to his house for a talk. Things were fine initially, but then the mood changed seemingly out of nowhere. Then she broke up with him, telling him that she had gotten all that she could out of him and that it was time for her to meet new people.
Then she got into her car and drove out of his life.